Even Eric Schlosser was surprised when the vast majority of Wednesday night’s packed Campbell Hall audience raised their hands to admit having smoked marijuana.
“I have to tell you, that’s slightly higher than the national average,” said Schlosser, author of the best-selling book Fast Food Nation.
Schlosser – on a lecture tour for his new book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market – said the American black markets for marijuana and illegal immigrant labor are indicative of problems posed by blind allegiance to the “free market theology” that has dominated American political culture for the past 20 years and now threatens the country’s future.
“The black market is interesting to me not for its sensational aspects – and sex and drugs and cheap labor are certainly sensational subjects – but I’m interested in the black market for what it says about the rest of the economy and this country,” he said. “In looking at the underground, I’m really trying to understand the mainstream. In my mind it’s like the yin and the yang and how the dark and the light are actually part of one thing.”
He said a pure free market as described by economist Adam Smith is a myth because government spending takes the place of Smith’s “invisible hand,” which theoretically creates prices by perfectly matching what people want to buy with what people want to produce.
“It’s kind of like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus,” Schlosser said. “There is no free market.”
Schlosser used the example of high marijuana usage rates – citing data showing 54 percent of college-aged students have smoked it despite its illegality – to show how the American government’s promotion of a free market is hypocritical when compared to its practice of heavily subsidizing major industries through government spending.
“That means by definition that over half of America’s young people are criminals – people who have been involved in criminal activity,” Schlosser said. “This raises a question about the free market. Here’s something that millions and millions of people not only want, but buy and indulge in, yet the free market doesn’t allow.”
He said the government restricts marijuana consumption based on a moral judgment, not a scientific evaluation, since marijuana is many times less toxic than alcohol. He also said during the night’s Q&A period that he would rather have his kids smoke pot than have them take shots of hard alcohol.
“There is no known fatal dose of marijuana. Nobody has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although I know some people who have tried, and I also know some people who have been convinced that they were about to die,” Schlosser said to a laughing audience. “Scientists have estimated you would have to smoke 100 pounds [of marijuana] a minute for 15 minutes [to take a fatal dose], so it just can’t be done.”
In addition to manipulating the marijuana market through prohibition, Schlosser also said the American government heavily subsidized the Internet and the railroad, automobile and airline industries in their infancies, contrary to a free market doctrine.
“When you start looking closely, the government is intervening in the economy every single day, and I think that’s good,” Schlosser said. “I think there are ways the government could intervene by building roads, subsidizing high-tech – that’s very good for this economy, but if it is going to intervene on behalf of these industries, it can also intervene on behalf of the poorest, weakest people in this society.”
The weakest people in American society, Schlosser said, are the illegal immigrant field workers, who are exploited throughout the country.
“It’s in California, where we are right now, that a labor model of exploiting illegal immigrants and recent immigrants was perfected in … agriculture,” Schlosser said. “If left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a workforce that is hungry, desperate and cheap – a workforce that is anything but free.”
Schlosser said he is not trying to tell people what to think.
“I have kids and I’ve seen very early on that telling people what to think just does not work,” he said. “What I’m trying to do as a writer is to make people think.”
Several members of the audience who lined up to have Schlosser sign copies of his book said they enjoyed the presentation and agreed with his arguments.
“I liked the way he presented his information … very objectively,” said Alex Melelian, 20, a second-year political science major. “He wasn’t trying to preach a platform.”
David Pricco, a 19-year-old Santa Barbara City College student, asked Schlosser one of about a dozen questions the author fielded after his lecture. Pricco said he enjoyed the lecture but was skeptical of some of Schlosser’s reasoning.
“It was really enjoyable,” he said. “I felt he was kind of like Michael Moore. He used some flawed logic about the rest of the world [prohibiting marijuana] because the U.S. is telling them to. Countries in the Middle East aren’t doing it because we’re telling them to. But he made a lot of good points.”